75. The Politics of Dogs

Dear Tera,

Summer is here, the routines have changed, and all that an old dog of refined taste and discernment wants to do is to rest in the shade of the cedars.

Lily, being a dog of lesser taste and discernment, of course, still wants to run around the park and play with the other dogs. 

We are stepsisters.  She came to the pack when the Mom, Sporty and Sunshine moved in with Alpha, the Pup and me, and she has been my constant companion ever since. 

But is it our difference in age that makes our temperaments so dissimilar?  Was I also that rambunctious before these old bones started aching?  I know I never had that dainty, high-stepping pace.

Or is it our breeding that makes me so much calmer when dealing with life’s trials and tribulations?

Both Lily and I share a German Shepherd ancestry, and sometimes humanoids mistake us for sisters.  But her family tree veers towards the Border Collie, while mine has branches entwined with the Labradors.

As a result, I love nothing better than to swim; she likes to herd.  I tend to be silent when playing with the other dogs; she likes to bark.

They say that Border Collies and German Shepherds are among the smartest breeds, but I think Lily may have missed out on those genes and picked up the Collie’s tendency toward neurosis and suckiness.  Or am I just being, shall we say it, catty?

But it really is amusing to watch Lily’s morning routines:  how she rests her dewlap on the knee of Alpha or the Mom or anyone else sitting in the living room, until she gets her head stroked and she is reassured that she is a very pretty dog.

There’s another side to my sister’s personality that has been coming out in the past months.  She will not take insults lightly, especially from the lap dogs. 

Lily doesn’t refer to them as the lap dogs.  She calls them the floor mops, because they are the same size and shade of white.  In Windsor Park, they are rarely allowed to walk when there are other dogs around:  their alphas hold them in their arms.

I don’t know what it is that these two dogs have said to Lily, but they’ve certainly set a burr under her tail.

At first I thought she was galloping over to play with them, the way she always does.  The next thing, it’s no longer play but a real rumble, with my Alpha shouting and their alphas shrieking and much flailing of leashes.  Dogs are separated: the lap dogs in the arms of their alphas; Lily sitting obediently; me watching it all in amusement.

We all then proceed in our respective directions, bad feelings all around, but with Lily exhibiting just a trace of smug triumph.

If dogs were allowed to sort these things out, of course, it would be over in 30 seconds and peace would be restored.  One dog would end up on top, the other on the bottom, and nothing more need be said or done on the matter. 

Humanoids tend to assume that, if left to our own devices, the lives of dogs would be nasty, brutish and short.  On the contrary: we tend to settle our differences quickly and decisively, so we can go on to enjoy the finer things in life – like trying to make the lives of squirrels nasty, brutish and short.

Once dogs have sorted things out, future encounters tend to be orderly and restrained – maybe even tail-wagging – because we know the measure of one another. There is no need to constantly reassert a pecking order.  That is the nature of dogs.

But when humanoids intervene in the politics of dogs, the signals become confused.  Dogs that would otherwise know their place are inclined to get scrappy.  They lift their tails in a way that humanoids lift a finger. 

These dogs act, I hate to say it, like cats.  And they seem to be treated as if they were cats, and not capable of reaching an accommodation in a mature, canine way. 

  And if the dogs can’t work it out, the attitudes rankle the next encounter.

So I think the park is going to be an interesting place in the coming months.  My Alpha is on the watch to make sure that Lily is kept close at hand if the lap dogs are in sight; I’m sure their alphas are anxious to avoid encounters as well.  And those of us who like a little bit of entertainment anticipate the inevitable occasions when we all turn a corner and find ourselves face-to-face, paws on the ground, once more.

A dog who knows she’s a dog,     


August, 2007

Letters to the Editor

Zoscha – You Have Mail!

Dear Zoscha,

I was sad to hear that your house mate Lily had an encounter with some small dogs who take advantage of the fact that humanoids don’t understand dog communication very well, and then hide behind their humans.  You will note that I don’t call their humans their alphas, because usually dogs like that think they are one the same level as humans, and above the rest of us.

That can happen all too easily, even to the best of dogs.  My friend Nellie was going to come over for a play date – and for me an energetic terrier my own size and full of saucy terrier antics is a perfect companion to romp with.  But she was not allowed to come because she had started to be very aggressive toward other dogs.

She was taken to a trainer who questioned her alphas, and deduced from their household habits that dear Nellie, quite without realizing what was happening to her, had begun to think herself almost human.  She was sleeping on the alphas bed, had her own chair to curl up in, and in a house without junior humanoids she was beginning to take their place.

Poor Nellie!  She didn’t realize what had been happening to her, but pup-o-pup did her life change!  Back to the crate for sleeping, always on the short leash, no more soft beds or cozy chairs.  No more snacks of people-food when alphas are munching.  Nope – back to the dog world.  They even toss her over and pin her on her back sometimes just to show her who is an alpha!  But tough love is working, and Nellie is becoming her old self again.  Maybe soon she will come to visit me at Windsor, and we will rip up the turf chasing all the varmints and bee beasties we can find.

Zoscha, please give Lily my sympathies.  I understand how easy it is to be riled by some of those saucy dogs that know they never have to stand up for what they say.  You know that I am a friendly pup – I run and play with everyone, and everyone seems to like to romp with me.  Sometimes I even coax one of the grumpy old loners to job about on his arthritic old legs and live like a pup for a little while.

One day I trotted over to greet a pair of little white mops who sound like Lily’s un-friends.  Suddenly instead of a hello, one of them called out that anything as ugly as me had to be the product of an improper relationship between a squirrel and a pussy cat!  Let me tell you that I wanted to do more than put my pay on its skinny neck!  I ran over as the alphas swept the little mops up into their arms and glared at me and all the humans around.  You would think that I had tried to start something!  I barked a couple of times, then held my head up and grinned a little terrier grin at the rascal as I trotted back to play.  I have the long memory of my true Celtic heritage, and I will grin a little terrier grin on another day.